Pardon, monsieur, but that wasn't my stomach growling

HAPPY EATER

September 01, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Something furry and white was draped over the arm of the woman wearing the white Chanel suit. As she glided to her seat in the swank open-air restaurant of the Hotel Martinez on France's Mediterranean coast, the "fur" moved. She was carrying her dog, a terrier that matched the color of her outfit.

The woman and her husband dined under the stars. Their dog sat under the table eating nothing. Some of the Americans in the restaurant gawked. I was one of them. But the French in the restaurant didn't blink.

When Fido comes to dinner, cultures clash. For us Americans, seeing a dog in a restaurant was a novelty, something usually forbidden by health laws. But in France -- a country of about 57 million people and 10 million dogs -- a pooch in the restaurant dining room seemed as much a part of the scene as businessmen riding bicycles.

"Some restaurants allow dogs and some don't," says Patricia Wells, restaurant critic for the International Herald Tribune in Paris and author of several books on French food, including "The Food Lover's Guide to Paris."

"The French are fond of their pets and they take them everywhere," Ms. Wells says in an interview in Paris.

"It is much less common now than it was 10 years ago," says Ms. Wells, who has lived in France 13 years. One possible explanation for the drop-off was that many of the dog-toting patrons tend to be elderly and their numbers are diminishing. The younger owners of dogs seemed less inclined to cart a dog to dinner.

No one I could find kept statistics on the number of restaurant visits by dogs. However, during several recent days of eating and dog-watching in France, I found evidence that the French were still fond of dining with pets.

* In Paris, poodles were spotted napping in bistros.

* In the medieval village of St.-Paul-de-Vence near Nice, two Labradors padded down the cobblestone streets poking their noses in an entryway leading to Le Saint Paul restaurant. Joanna Zedde, director of the establishment, says dogs, when accompanied by owners, are regular visitors to the white-tablecloth restaurant.

* In Golfe Juan on the French Riviera, a large white sheep dog stood at the door of the seaside restaurant and, along with the proprietor, greeted customers.

* In a neighborhood brasserie in Antibes, a German shepherd curled under a bar stool while his owner sipped a beer. Neither man nor beast seemed anxious to move.

My research also uncovered several theories about dogs in restaurants.

Ms. Wells, for instance, contends that you see more dogs in the restaurants of small French towns than in big city restaurants.

My theory was that the bigger the city, the smaller the dog. In the big city of Paris, for instance, the preferred pooch to take to dinner seemed to be a small poodle, often carried in a shopping bag.

Not all the French subscribed to the notion that it was OK to take Fido to a restaurant. Fabienne Sempere, a tour guide from St. Laurent du Var, says she would no sooner take her poodle to dinner than she would take her 2-year-old son to a fine restaurant.

"When you go to a restaurant at night, the children and the dog should stay at home," she says.

But as with many of her fellow French, she was tolerant of the seemingly eccentric behavior of dog owners. "Many of these ladies have lost their husbands, and their families are far away," says Ms. Sempere. "So in order to have a dinner companion they have a dog."

Another reason few French seem unwilling to raise a fuss about dogs in restaurants is that French dogs have such good manners. The dogs rarely eat in the restaurants. Mostly they just sit still.

"The French treat their dogs like human beings," Ms. Wells says, "and the dogs are very well-behaved.

"You will sit through a meal and not hear a sound from table next you," she says. "Then, at the end of the meal, this monstrous dog gets out from under the table and walks out."

I didn't see any examples of another French culinary tradition, the practice of keeping a cat in the kitchen of a grand restaurant.

But I read an article in the New York Times reporting that while cats could still be found in a few French kitchens, they were a rare sight. For example, of the 19 restaurants currently carrying the three star ranking of the Michelin Guide, only two had resident cats.

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